Defying Odds: A Story of Survival Under Turkey’s Earthquake Rubble

By Reuters
February 16, 2023Middle East
Defying Odds: A Story of Survival Under Turkey’s Earthquake Rubble
Huseyin Berber, 62, a survivor who was rescued after being trapped under the rubble for 187 hours in Antakya, speaks to media and doctors at Mersin City hospital, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Turkey, on Feb. 15, 2023. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

MERSIN, Turkey—Huseyin Berber’s voice was hoarse from calling for help from under the rubble of his home but he was finally freed more than a week after Turkey’s massive earthquake, defying the odds for survival and one of several remarkable stories to emerge.

Doctors say people can last, even without water, for days. But there are so many variables—what injuries were sustained in a building collapse and how hot or cold is it outside—that rescuers say anything after five days is miraculous.

Berber, a 62-year-old diabetic, survived 187 hours after the walls of his groundfloor flat were propped up by a fridge and a cabinet, leaving him an armchair to sit in and a rug to keep him warm.

He had a single bottle of water, and when that ran out, drank his own urine.

Berber was speaking from a bed at Mersin City Hospital, some 250 km from the 15-storey building that collapsed in the city of Antakya in southern Hatay Province, where half the buildings were either destroyed or heavily damaged. He was admitted on Tuesday.

He said he had been surrounded by relatives in different rooms in his apartment, all of whom he believes managed to survive.

“When the earthquake hit, I immediately stood up, my grandchild was sleeping next to me. I looked around, my son turned on a light, took a flashlight, and said ‘Father, it’s an earthquake!’

“In a second tremor, the ceiling collapsed, but it did not touch me. I immediately crouched, sat down. The wall fell over on to fridge and the cabinet. I was stuck there. There was a rug. I took that and put it over me … I saw there was a armchair, I climbed over it took the rug, and sat there.

“I shouted, shouted, and shouted. No one was hearing me. I shouted so much that my throat hurt. Our son, I think took out the kids … we were five people, my son and I were in the bedroom.”

He said he found his diabetes medicine and a bottle of water on the floor.

“An hour later, I took (the water bottle) and drank it. Apologies, I peed in it and let it rest. I drank it when it got cold. I saved myself with that.”

A destroyed building is seen in in Nurdagi, Turkey, on Feb. 13, 2023. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

‘Someone Reached Their Hand Out’

A member of the Turkish medical rescue team said people under the rubble can generally survive up to five days. “Anything beyond five days is a miracle,” he said.

Deniz Gezer, internal medicine specialist at Mersin City Hospital, said one of the biggest problems for survival was the cold.

“But some of the patients stayed in closed areas, so they can live under buildings, in small closed spaces. Some have water with them.”

Mohana Amirtharajah, a surgery adviser with Medecins Sans Frontieres, said dehydration happens faster in children.

Asked whether drinking urine was a genuine survival, strategy, she said she would not recommend it.

“But there are definitely case reports of people who survive in that way. But what you will find over time is you become more and more dehydrated, is that your urine becomes more and more concentrated. So the actual water content of your urine will go down.”

Berber, in his hospital bed, surrounded by beeping machines, said he thought no one was going to save him.

“I was here, they were there. I climbed next to the cabinet, I am reaching out to the ceiling but I cannot touch it. But on the other side of the room it collapsed on to the bed. Our son brought three diggers, they are digging. I was hitting the ceiling, I saw it is punctured, I heard a voice, I shouted.

“Someone reached their hand out and it met with my hand. They pulled me out from there. The hole I got out from was very small. That scared me a bit.

“I do not remember anything after they pulled me out. I was rescued, I got out, I wanted water and food, especially water. I did not eat anything, there was nothing to eat.

Caglar Aksoy Colak, a doctor at Mersin City Hospital, said doctors only provided “supportive treatment” for Berber.

“He has no broken bones, his general status is fairly good … He actually inspired himself down there. Our patient came out in a very good condition.”

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